WASHINGTON, DC, United States (UPI) -- If Tehran would have only focused on building nuclear power plants, it would be able to export more of the oil and natural gas it produces and avoid a growing confrontation with the U.N. Security Council and the United States.
'I think that most people now understand that Iran is doing two quite distinct things,' said Ian Hore-Lacy, director of public communications for the London-based World Nuclear Association. 'One is it has a perfectly legitimate nuclear power program for generating electricity. And the second is that it is enriching uranium without any commercial justification for that.'
The reactor Russia is building in Bushehr isn`t considered a proliferation threat, but is still considered a possible but less likely target. The most likely focus of bombing and U.N. sanctions is the enrichment facilities that may have violated the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
'The power program, by my sort of back-of-the-envelope arithmetic, ... will pay for that reactor in about 2 1/2 years with the oil and gas that`s freed up for export as a result of having it, which is a pretty good payback,' Hore-Lacy told United Press International during a phone interview from his office in Melbourne, Australia. Iran produces nearly 4 million barrels of oil per day, exporting more than half of it. Despite having the second-largest reserves of natural gas, it lacks enough investment to be a major exporter.
'They`ve devoted a huge amount of money and energy to this enrichment program, without any evident commercial justification,' Hore-Lacy said. 'Obviously that money and energy could be put into building other reactors or something like that. It`s obvious there`s an opportunity cost there.'
Instead of the half dozen nuclear reactors Iran has on the far-off drawing board, Hore-Lacy said, they could be under construction or online.
'If Iran was in the sort of political mainstream with regard to its openness and compliance with NPT obligations, yes it would be a very different ball game,' he said.
Bushehr would be Iran`s first commercial plant. It was a project started by the German firm Siemens but abandoned for lack of payment and the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Russia signed a contract in 1995 and will deliver the nuclear fuel and take back the waste, a factor in approval by the International Atomic Energy Agency. (Recent dispute between the two countries has stalled the project, with news reports that experts are leaving Iran. Russia says Tehran is behind on payments; Iran says Moscow is mixing business and politics.)
In 2002, a dissident unveiled a stealth nuclear program in Iran, bringing immediate international attention. Tehran says it has the sovereign right to a complete nuclear program -- including a full fuel cycle -- because it is a signatory to the NPT. But the IAEA says Iran hasn`t been forthright enough to determine its program is solely for energy purposes.
'It`s announced plans for about six but it hasn`t done anything about them yet. It`s all words at this stage. We will see,' Hore-Lacy said. 'I wouldn`t be surprised if they build more but it will take them many years to have enough to justify having their own enrichment program.'
'The scale of the equipment they`re installing, and enrichment plants are necessarily fairly large items, the scale of what they`re installing is disproportionate to their foreseeable needs,' Hore-Lacy said.
And even demand for fuel doesn`t guarantee international acceptance of a full cycle, Hore-Lacy said. Regardless, Iran isn`t making that pitch too well.
'That would be the understatement of the week,' he said. 'The fact that the darn thing`s been clandestine in contravention of Iran`s obligations under the NPT for 19 years is the first sort of little stumbling block. And the second is if you`re setting up a very expensive enrichment program there you probably need it to be servicing about 50 reactors, not one.'
Hore-Lacy compared it to buying a car and 'then say `oh gee I better go out and buy the service station down on the corner so that I can make sure that I`ve got petrol for it.` Who would you expect to buy that story? But that`s what Iran is trying to expect the world to believe in respect to what it asserts is the peaceful purposes for that program.'
'It`s obvious from the IAEA and U.N. arena they haven`t convinced anyone,' Hore-Lacy said.
Still, international nuclear agreements are no sure bet against proliferation, since much of the nuclear technology and know-how to generate electricity could be used to generate a bomb.
An attack on Iran 'would make aspiring countries more leery,' said Cliff Kupchan, director of Europe & Eurasia for the business risk analyst Eurasia Group. 'But we still face a broken regime, an NPT that basically allows a country to get right to the cusp of developing a nuclear weapon legally' and then break out into a weapons state.
Iran has spread out and buried its facilities, making it more capable of surviving an attack, though it could cause other countries intent on a similar program to reevaluate, especially if Bushehr is hit, said Jon Wolfsthal, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
'If the United States were to demonstrate that it is prepared to bomb ostensibly civilian facilities, facilities under (IAEA) safeguards, to which Iran arguably -- I don`t make this argument -- but arguably has the legal right to utilize, it does cast a major pall over the security of nuclear facilities everywhere,' Wolfsthal said.